Pictou celebrating No. 2 Construction Battalion on 100th anniversary
William White left slavery behind to fight for freedom in the First World War
Canadians are getting ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First World War's famous all-black No. 2 Construction Battalion this weekend.
The unit formed in Pictou on July 9, 1916, and on Saturday, people will gather to mark the centenary in Nova Scotia.
Keith Mercer is the cultural resource manager for Parks Canada at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site.
He says while Canada had no official anti-black policy for recruiting soldiers in the First World War, in practice officers rejected nearly every African Canadian from serving in the "white man's war."
Many African Canadians petitioned the federal government and armed forces and finally won permission to form Canada's first — and only — all-black battalion. The unit was called the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
As its soldiers weren't allowed to fight, they built roads and trenches to support Allied operations in Europe.
Born a slave, he fought for freedom
William White was the public face of that historic unit. He is being honoured as a Hometown Hero by Parks Canada.
"William White is a really important figure in Nova Scotia history. During the First World War, he was the only black officer and the chaplain for the No. 2 Construction Battalion," Mercer says.
White was born to people who had been born in captivity in the slave-owning American south.
100 years later we honour & celebrate the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion for their courage, determination and dedication <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/foughttofight?src=hash">#foughttofight</a>—@RememberNo2
"He originally came up to Nova Scotia to study divinity at Acadia University," Mercer told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning on Tuesday.
After graduating, he worked at local churches and became the "natural leader for this battalion as a recruiting force and really as its face," he says.
"He played a very important role and is very well thought of in the African Nova Scotian community as standing up for black Nova Scotians' rights and freedoms and really their willingness and eagerness to fight for their country at a time when the country didn't really want them to fight."
Pastor at Cornwallis Baptist church
Mercer calls him a "voice of racial tolerance," a special person who could fight through racism in Nova Scotia to become one of the few black people who made it to university.
He was a strong voice "speaking out about black Nova Scotians, black Canadians, who wanted to fight, were eager to fight, and should have that opportunity."
White "was one of the very few black officers in the Canadian and larger Commonwealth Forces. So just in that regard he stands out," Mercer says.
His diary survives — he wrote nearly daily to his wife and family. "That close connection never wavered."
After the war, he became pastor of Halifax's Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. "He became a foundational figure in the black community in Halifax. In every sense of the term, he's a heroic figure who had a massive impact on his community," Mercer says.
On Saturday, there will be a commemoration service in Pictou. It starts with an honour parade along Caladh Avenue at 10:30 a.m, followed by a formal ceremony in the deCoste Centre, hosting descendants of the battalion and participants from all across Canada and the United States.